The Residue of Authenticity

In my coaching, training, and consulting roles, I’ve been increasingly aware that I’m talking more about authenticy in leadership. At times, much of my conversation with clients is to help them become aware of the unintended consequences of their words and actions. What needs to be stripped away is the leader’s unconcious layer or protective coating which comes from fear of inadequacy, fear of disagreement or confrontation, or the dreaded fear of loss of control.

Recently, I came across something from American poet Maya Angelou that cuts to the heart of what I’ve been hoping to convey:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

For those in organizational leadership positions and for those whose work involves inviting others to make personal gifts to support your organization, Angelou’s message is simple and powerful. If your personal interaction is such that it makes people feel whole and valued, then you are leaving in your wake a person who may to do likewise. This type of interaction is not about manipulation or the masterful execution of strategy. Rather, it means caring enough about the spirit of the relationship that you will be candid and empathetic.

Think about that combination for a moment–candor and empathy. Candor involves freeing oneself from spin doctoring and simply speaking your mind. Empathy brings in the quality of seeking to understand and internalize another person’s perspective–how they feel. These qualities–candor and empathy–in thoughtful and disciplined combination, become a platform for solid leadership.

In our contemporary business world, these notions can seem “soft” or “touchy-feely.” Yet I submit that those who would offer that criticism are still so gripped by a view of leadership as singular heroics, singular greatness, and singular abilities. Rather, much of what will stand the test of time is the result of cooperation and collaboration, thereby requiring that each of us never forgets how we are making others feel. This is the residue of authentic leadership.

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Personal Courage, Authenticity, and Alignment

Conversation 2010 participants surfaced the idea that an institution shares with its donors/partners a set of beliefs in some process of imagining and responding to some dream or some shared opportunity that can resolve an important problem. Our role is to set the table for that shared imagining to occur. This early process can be fraught with—and enriched and framed by—some unstated things like imagination, identity, beliefs, and a dream of something that could resolve an important problem. That process is rooted in the personal courage to have authentic conversations with people. The process is also framed by our response to the environment, choices which have opportunity costs and which put pressure on our tactics. We explored the questions of whether and how we can be sure we’re being authentic in seeking new ways to tap others’ intentions or sources for good. It could be different for individuals and groups. We told a story about “seeking the source from behind the rock” (in reference to an old BC comic strip) that requires a relationship over time where both the rock and the seeker are different each visit.

(graphic by Ken Hubbell)

Our conversation moved from the ephemeral to the practical in how to do this. We talked about how to do the alignment, a way to do culture building. We concluded that for individuals and organizations to enrich these connected conversations, to get better at them, would require working beyond silos. Connect the silos, but don’t get stopped by them. Leaders will have to help their organizations create a new and intentional learning agenda to see their operating environment as a whole system which is ever in flux, constantly seeking change.